In September 1913, the Irish poet W.B. Yeats lamented the extent to which money had come to displace virtue amongst his countrymen. “What need you, being come to sense / But fumble in a greasy till … Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.”
Fumbling in greasy tills sparked similar anger this weekend, from the revolt at Old Trafford to the ongoing saga over “Tory sleaze”. Over the last weeks, the government has been dogged by scandals, from the Greensill lobbying affair implicating David Cameron and senior civil servants to the latest imbroglio over “cash for curtains”. Football saw a botched attempt by elite clubs to shed what remained of their origin and become globalised brands in the Super League. They failed because they sparked the populist uprising that political scandals have not yet stirred. But what these sorry tales point to are common maladies afflicting British public life.
The most telling common strand is rentier behaviour. Rentier capitalism is essentially in the spirit of something for nothing. The classic case, which I am sure many students will identify with, is landlords. Beyond repairs, they do nothing productive other than owning a house but claim rent from those who must live in it. Yet landlordism has exploded in Britain over the last few decades, dragging money out of productive areas and pushing a dead weight onto the incomes of many young people.
And this behaviour is replicated in the cases of the Super League and lobbying. With the Super League, one of the major criticisms of the six clubs was what they were attempting was sport without competition, which would remove all glory and drama. A “dead rubber” is no entertainment.
But what is present is guaranteed money for the club owners, specifically from the TV coverage, which since the 1990s has turned an increasing profit for the big clubs. The appeal of the Super League for them was the guarantee of top-flight European football without having to fight for it – money for nothing and no need to compete.
Likewise, the corruption within the Conservative party reflects the same desire – an easy contract to get rich quick, without the risk of competition. Think of the ministerial mates who secured government contracts during the pandemic and made small fortunes as a result. Lex Greensill befriended Cameron in order to pay his way into the government. Cameron was quite happy to assist via lobbying his former aide, Matt Hancock. And we may presume that the donors allegedly paying to tart up Downing Street were not doing so out of the goodness of their heart – they wanted something in return. If you can become friendly enough with ministers, you do not need to best the competition – you can simply get by with a little help from your friends.
Another telling common denominator is the increased presence of global predatory capitalists infiltrating British institutions. The influence of American billionaires on the Super League concept was apparent – they were attempting to force European football to cohere to American sporting models. Equally, we can note the Gulf princes and the Russian oligarchs among the Super League owners, also main characters in the broader cast of globalised corruption. The most astonishing photograph from the Greensill affair was David Cameron and Lex Greensill relaxing in a tent in Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, also involved in the trip, was presumably off-screen. The Saudis have also tried to muscle in on the footballing cash cow, with bin Salman literally dropping into the DMs of the PM to ask for his support.
All of this shows the extent to which Britain and especially London have become a casino for international oligarchs. The City of London has faced accusations of profiting from not just tax evasion but money laundering. McMafia brilliantly demonstrated the extent to which the Russian robber baron elite has infiltrated London. The influx of extra-territorial investment and money laundering has contributed to the worst of the London property crisis. Much of Canary Wharf is owned by the Qatari state, for example. Royal Albert Dock is partly owned by the Chinese state. The most staggering example is the so-called Billionaires Row in Hampstead. Many properties there are left to go to rack and ruin, owned by shell companies only for tax dodging purposes.
However, it is not just money laundering but reputation laundering that interests much of the oligarchic class. Buying up sporting teams is part of this – who would not want to have Manchester United as their personal plaything? But I am afraid our University is also involved. From the Schwarzmann Centre to the Said Business School, from the Blavatnik to the Tencent-Wykeham professorship – it has accepted the Greeks bearing gifts. So, who knows – in years to come, if the money is right, might we even have a Mohammad bin Salman Centre for Journalism to match those others?
It is clichéd to say it, but what this also underlines is a crisis of values in British public life. I am not naively claiming a lost Eden – the Victorian empire was hardly an icon of moral government. But the ideals the British people want in their institutions are clearly further undermined. It could be seen most clearly in the rage over the Super League, the sense of fans that something dear to them had been corrupted and betrayed. British sport has always had a curious place in the British national psyche. It represents the ideals of fair play and duty the British wish to believe are intrinsic, the sense that breaking them is “just not cricket”. The same archetype is supposed to govern the Civil Service, deliberately designed to aspire to the epitome of neutral and virtuous good government. Yet now we discover civil servants were absolutely integral to the scandal over Greensill, with a “revolving door” between Whitehall and the company.
We can see the lure of Money, Money, Money overwhelming government, much as football has fallen to the same impulses. David Cameron was desperate for a $60 million payday. Boris Johnson previously described the hundreds of thousands he was paid as a columnist as “chickenfeed”. Now his partner is said to have derided the “John Lewis nightmare” they inherited in Downing Street. Public servants are no longer satisfied by the comfortable remuneration for service that is supposed to be their lot. Now they aspire to the level of the oligarchs who increasingly form their donor base and the surrounding elite.
This crisis of values matters because it is inherently destabilising to society. That classic stereotype, the honest, hard-working taxpayer, resents corruption and rentiers. Previous elites always used ideology and culture to evade this. The old aristocracy spent centuries buttressing a superstructure of divine right with a dollop of noblesse oblige. J.S. Mill described how Puritanism in 19th century America ensured stability and equality. The rich could not flaunt their wealth in a gaudy way – something we do not precisely now see in the America of Trump and Kanye.
The failure to legitimise the position of elites will, in turn, generate revolt. There was an echo of the Brexit revolt of 2016 in the Old Trafford protest by fans who wanted football back. Indeed, many of those involved were probably of the same demographic – men who felt their elites had become remote and uninterested in the values they treasured.
Most fascinating politically is the revolt succeeded by winning the Conservative Party as a weapon – much as it did on Brexit. Increasingly, the Conservative party is Janus-faced – torn between its donor base of Russian oligarchs and London bankers and its voter base of the enraged make-it-stop populists.
No politician is now more torn apart by this contradiction than Boris Johnson. In many ways, he is the classic example of the so-called ‘swamp creature’ – a professional politician willing to squander taxes on ego projects or ‘spaff money up the wall’ for a mistress. Yet he has also been the great interpreter of populist rage, riding the tiger first to dethrone his great rival David Cameron in 2016 and then to electoral victory in 2019. It is the fundamental tension of these two personas that now endangers him. The open questions are: can he continue to straddle the contradiction of both man of the people and swamp dweller? And can his party maintain their balancing act between plutocracy and populism?
Image Credits: Mia Clement